Atlantic Crossing – The sailing so far

If you read the sailing magazines or search for the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) on the internet, you will find many articles and adverts from the yacht charter companies etc. talking about escaping the European winter to sail downwind in the tradewinds in shorts and tee shirts for days on end under blue skies and bright sunshine. And last time I did this trip that was pretty much what we got. However it depends on two things: Firstly that the tradewinds are blowing (and they don’t blow all year round, they normally kick in around the end of November) and secondly that the skipper has opted to follow the tried and tested route (head south until the butter melts then turn right).

On this trip neither has occurred so things have been a little different, so here is a summary of the sailing for the first half on the trip – yes we passed the midway mark in the early hours of this morning. Before we describe the sailing lets first take a look at the sails we are carrying for those less familiar with yachts. We have a choice of five sails at any one time and normally use up to three at any one time. We are using a very old mainsail, one we got with the boat and that has been sitting in the garage specifically for this trip. Before we left Las Palmas Lesley and I, with a welcome bit of help from our neighbouring boats swapped our newer mainsail for the old one (not an easy task as it weighs over 85 kg!). Being a downwind trip the mainsail shape is not so critical and it can suffer a fair amount of wear and tear which is why we hung onto the old one. We also have our large genoa at the front of the boat and a small, little used staysail in between. Those three sails are available all the time, set and stowed with ropes from the cockpit.

In addition we have two specific downwind sails: We have a cruising chute, which can be hoisted furled and then set and stowed with some more lines led back to the cockpit and we have our favourite the parasailor. The parasailor is like a huge spinnaker but with a hole in the middle and a clever sailcloth wing which the force of the wind extends to stabilise it. To hoist and drop this requires people working on the foredeck so its not so easy to deploy. Both downwind sails are huge – in fact both of them are larger than a standard full size tennis court!

Our weapons of choice for the start were the mainsail and the cruising chute. The mainsail had never been hoisted since we put it on in harbour, and the cruising chute hadn’t been used since the UK, so we nervously hoisted the main on the way out to the starthoping we had got all the ropes in the right places. They weren’t quite right but they were thankfully good enough to start the rally and we were able to correct the rest later. The cruising chute was hoisted in preparation and looked like it would unfurl when needed. The start was at 13:00 and we made it to the like in time, choosing the committee boat end (which was actually a large spanish warship!). Just before the start gun went we bore away for the line and tried to unfurl the cruising chute but it resolutely refused to unfurl! A little deft work on the foredeck from Pete with Lesley pulling the strings and it finally set and we were over the line and away. We weren’t the only ones to get a tangle and were up on the line unlike most boats so actually had quite a good start.

Now this is a rally not a race, but when two boats meet at sea there is always a race, so imagine what happens when 240+ boats meet! Lesley and I soon fell into race mode calling gusts and playing the cruising chute, looking to gain every centimeter on the boats around us, much to Pete’s amusement as he wondered if we could keep up these competitive traits for the next 2700 miles! Needless to say as the fleet spread out and time went on the autohelm finally came on, the cruising chute got cleated and we started out on our 3 hour watch system.

As we headed down the eastern side of the island there had still been no definitive call of which route we were going to take. Actually I had made up my mind but certainly wasn’t going to share it with Lesley before we were too far away from all those other boats we had made friends with that might have taken the decision to go the nice comfy warm southern route, in case she decided to jump ship and hitch a ride! So as we approached the corner of the island I called the gybe and we headed West. There are some large wind shadows to the south of the Canary Islands (sometimes extending 50 miles) so you either have to cross your fingers and take the pain of light winds, or go a long way South then head back up. We chose the former and for much of the night ghosted along about 5 miles offshore catching every zephyr in the cruising chute. In the early hours we cleared the Island the wind came in, so we stowed the cruising chute, set the three white sails and blasted west at 8 knots + for a few hours feeling mighty relieved we had got away with cutting through the wind shadow. Then we stopped!

Most of Monday was spent searching for wind. We travelled in many different directions, not very fast and at some points ended up pointing back where we came from, just trying to keep moving. We did spot a school of whales which was fun but it certainly became a bit trying. Now being a rally not a race, and being in the cruising division (we have far too much junk onboard to contemplate going in the racing division, Ocean Blue tipped the scales at 24 tonnes in Portugal), we do have the option of using our engine, but there were several other boats around us all also looking for wind and for us it would have been a real cop out to turn the engine on. At about 8 pm the wind finally arrived and it built over night. As it built and came from further back we settled on broad reaching with a full genoa and a single reef in the main to keep the boat in balance.

The swell built over the next few days as did the sea state and wind and it became a full time job to keep your balance on the boat. The rain came too at times to ensure being on watch was something you had to do rather than wanted to do, and as soon as your watch ended you were down in the cabin heading for your berth to catch a bit of rest before you were needed again.

To describe it Lesley writes ‘The swell and sea state mean there is a constant movement not the long Atlantic swell I had been told about. The sea is also noisyas there is the crash of the breaking waves and a thundering roar as it gathers momentum and rises to push us forward surfng down the wave. I feel pretty small out here bobbing about on the ocean – quite humbling.’ and she adds ‘It seems that whenever it is my watch in the night the wind increases and the rain starts. The nights have been very dark with no moon making a distinction between the sea and sky impossible’

As the wind swung, we changed the sail plan and poled out the genoa sailing with the mainsail out on one side and the genoa on the other side. Its an often used sailplan for ocean sailing and proved remarkably effective and stable. The positive side to it all was we were starting to cover some serious distance. After an awful day of covering just 60 miles on the Monday, the distances rose to 185 and then 205 miles in a day – not huge by car, but a fair distance on a boat.

We get forecasts by email over the long range radio and we also have a nice piece of routing software which helps us decide which direction to go and what weather we can expect. This showed conditions improving (from a comfort point of view) and that exactly what happened.

By Sunday as Lesley says ‘What a difference a day makes. The world has colour. The sun is out and the air temperature is up. The sea is calmer and it looks blue in the sun, with white and turquoise as the crests break. There are rainbows in the distance and the sky is blue with small puffs of white cumulus.’

Now we want to be outside in the cockpit – its warm and pleasant and everything s beginning to dry out. The seas abated and out came the parasailor! We enjoyed a stunning day’s sailing under blue sunny skies in shorts and tee shirt with the mainsail and Parasailor powering us along. As evening approached the wind went forward and we reverted to white sails. Then it died completely again. When the wind died south of the Canaries everything was calm and it was all very quiet and sedate. This time was very different. The remainder of the swell and waves meant with no wind in the sails to steady the boat it rocks and rolls. As it does so the sails back and then fill with a deafening crack like a gunshot. The vibration echoes throughout the boat as everything jars. The rig shakes, the ropes and fittings inside the boom rattle and then it repeats. It repeats until there is enough wind for a few seconds to prevent it rocking and rolling. It was actually quite pretty whilst this was going on (terrifying as Lesley prefers to call it) because many of the surrounding clouds had lightening emerging from them! You don’t want to be in an electrical storm in a boat but luckily all the lightening was a fair distance away. We put up with the noise and banging and crashing for a few hours but ultimately its wearing on both us and the boat. Every time the genoa snaps full we worry about the laminate construction and kevlar reinforcement and how much its shortening its life. So eventually with heavy hearts we rolled away the genoa, admitted defeat and started the engine. It instantly transforms life onboard. We now have the drone of a diesel engine but the motion is pleasant and we are moving again. We cannot say we sailed all the way but hey its actually about enjoying the trip.

By early morning, on Lesley’s watch the wind is back, the engine is off and we are sailing again. And the wind stays for another glorious day of sailing in the sunshine. Distance covered is down a bit as the wind is lower but its hot and sunny and dry. We are spending our time on deck, the washing is done, the fishing line out, repairs are done and my hair has even been cut! In the evening the wind went light again and Lesley experienced her first proper Atlantic squall. One moment she is fast asleep on the bunk and the next she is woken by torrential rain, 35 knot winds from a completely different direction and a lot of noise from a drenched Derek and Pete as they struggle to trim the sails for the new wind, knowing full well it will all be over in five to ten minutes! And it was, the skies cleared the wind dropped and unfortunately the engine came back on again for the night. This takes us to today, where unfortunately we have had to motor for most of the day (the engine went off sometime after 3 pm) but again it was hot and sunny, the seas were flat and its been a glorious day.

So in short we have had a real mix, fast and furious, slow and dull then a lot of champagne sailing in stunning conditions. Our routing means it should just keep getting better now too as we start to work our way South. We have had it far better than those who took the Southerly route. We believe that the trades are beginning to develop now, but we can see from the position reports and fleet updates from rally control, and also from the radio nets that the south goers have had very little wind and many boats have had to divert to the Cape Verde Islands to pick up more fuel. Oh and as footnote we swam in the sea today! Its 4 km deep, we are a thousand miles from land and its crystal clear. No better way to cool off in the heat.

Time to get the latest weather then go on watch.

Bye from a happy warm crew, Derek, Lesley and Pete.

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